Damn the Torpedoes!
I have had a wide variety of experience with weapons during my life. From rapiers and bows, all the way up to weapons of great destruction. My time in the military exposed me to many high technology systems that were truly exotic. Without a doubt, the most unpredictable and cantankerous of them all was the torpedo.
Most of the 'fish I dealt with were the MK-46 torpedoes: lightweight, air-dropped antisubmarine torpedoes. They were quite small, intended to cripple a sub, not sink it. These torps were light enough to be carried by even the smallest helicopters, so we carried them on occasion. In my logbooks, I have entries for 11 torpedo drops, plus a couple that we couldn't get to release.
I ran the loading crew for our Detachment, and we received the highest marks the inspectors could give: still, the crabby little bastards vexed me. (The torps, not the inspectors :)
Out of eleven drops, three splashed into the depths and disappeared without a trace. Three others ran erratic or left the target area; another ran up to the target and stopped, a la Doctor Strangelove. Three actually worked as advertised, although one of these malfunctioned and sank ($360,000 on the bottom).
Number Eleven did something else altogether.------------------------------
As a kid, submarine movies from the forties were my favorite summertime fare. Each of the Hollywood stories would embellish another legend, and I ate them up. Japanese ships would pop; depth charges whooomp, and the victorious American submarine would escape by the slimmest of margins.
But, it was more than popcorn and pop-patriotism: within the scripts, a bit of disturbing information was nearly always mentioned.
The movies contained the cryptic knowledge that our torpedoes went astray or did not function in the heat of battle. I was bothered that our guys had to take on the Japanese with blunted swords -- on the other side, the Japanese torpedoes were models of efficiency, often taking down our ships with a single mighty blow.
Then, the worst disaster. The USS TANG (I think) was taking the war right into Tokyo Bay, striking ships and causing hell right in the Japanese' pond. At the moment of the TANG's greatest glory, one of her own torpedoes ran a circular route, blasting her to the bottom with only a pair of survivors. It was chilling.
These movies made a very lasting impression.
I rode with a pilot named Fondren, or Fondles to us, and he was on earth for the purpose of aggravating crewmen. He took the most bone-headed chances and made very basic mistakes in the air. We hardly got along but he used me to do the things I liked so it all worked out. It seemed we often got into bizarre situations together.
Torpedo #11 was bolted to the side of our helicopter, all the safeties were removed, and we taxied out of our parking spot at NAS North Island. The mission de jour was to drop that puppy on a target boat 20 miles off the coast of San Diego.
We arrived on station (overhead) and buzzed the little torpedo recovery boat. There were already two dead fish (expended torpedoes) on the ramp of the boat, showing that other aircraft had already made their attacks.
I armed my sonobouy launcher and got ready to spit two of the listening devices to track our torpedo's run through the water. I would listen to the radio signals and report the translated sounds, which change from an electric razor to a weed-whacker once the torpedo locates the target. There is no doubt in your mind when a torp sees its' prey -- unfortunately, any prey. We didn't know it, but we had the twisted soul of one of those old submarine torps strapped to our side.
Fondles did his thing, getting us over the target, and we orbited ahead of it. The heavy bang at my back indicated that a buoy had fired (cordite and gunpowder smells fill my nose), and I watched it parachute toward the waves.
"Pilot, (this is) SENSO (me), Buoy One Four is away." Seconds later, it smacked into the waves, "Splashdown -- One Four up and sweet (transmitting)."
The graph began to spool on my recorder, indicating all systems good.
Fondren began his bombing run on the marker smokes and I felt the rippling shrug through the helicopter as the 800-pound torpedo fell away. My window is directly over the bomb-rack, so I watched it swing away (huh?) toward the water below. It was falling much too fast.
"Pilot, SENSO! No chute!"
Fondren could see it, too but didn't comment. The wire that was supposed to release the chute had pulled out as advertised, but no-go.
With a towering geyser, the expensive toy slammed into the sea and vanished.
After a pause, "You got anything, SENSO?"
My recorder, and my ears, recognized the impact, but no motor sounds from our torpedo. Before I could respond, the fish exploded into snarling, angry life.
"Geez-us! Pilot, SENSO, its running like a banshee! Instead of going though search and tracking modes, this thing is going full throttle!" The sound of the gas-driven propellers screamed in unfathomable madness as the damaged weapon tried to find its target in the dark. Finally, it heard something louder than itself and locked on. The torpedo raced to fulfill its programming, while I listened to it rage.
"It, ...ah... I think its homing on something..... well, its not circling anymore...?"
Out of sight below the waves, the torpedo screamed away from my listening buoy. You just can't track something behaving that way, especially as it raced around at fifty miles per hour. I looked out my window; we were hovering 40 feet above the ocean, with the torpedo recovery boat comfortably out of range. Something very odd ...
With an enormous surge of released energy, the torpedo pulled out of a steep dive, and attacked. At 45 knots, all 800 pounds of bitch launched itself vertically at the belly of our helicopter.
Like a trained dolphin gone bad, it sailed out of the water on a white column of water, more than 25 feet high.
With his characteristic squeal, Fondles wrestled the controls, just as the fish flew up in our faces. As we struggled out of hover and into flight, the turncoat made another attempt to spear us. In its thrashing, it had the appearance of something alive to me.
Eventually, the motor overheated and the torpedo splashed back into the churned sea. It lay still on the surface, leaking green dye and slowly sinking by the tail.
On Fondrens' direction, I dropped a smoke marker into the dye so the Recovery boat could find our little tramp. A later radio call informed us that the parachute release wire had fouled on the torpedo's fin, and the water impact had taken off one fin, and a large chunk of one of the 8 propeller blades.
The resulting commotion had blinded the weapon's sonar to everyone but us.
Damn torpedoes.... Why can't we just buy Japanese?
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Last Modified: Sunday July 05, 2009